You Have To Acknowledge Your Sickness Before You Can Be Cured

I see in myself, Lucilius, not just an improvement but a transformation, although I would not venture as yet to assure you, or even to hope, that there is nothing left in me needing to be changed. Naturally, there are a lot of things about me requiring to be built up or fined down or eliminated. Even this, the fact that it perceives the failings it was unaware of in itself before, is evidence of a change for the better in one’s character. In the case of some sick people, it is a matter for congratulations when they come to realize for themselves that they are sick. (Letters from a Stoic, Seneca)

How many among us walk around with sickness without realizing it? Part of the issue is the everydayness of life. People have to look after their children, work most of their waking hours, pay bills, sit in traffic, be surrounded by people they don’t like and so on. Just the simple act of smiling can be tough let alone the need to take care of oneself physically. Just exercising for 30 minutes can be seen as a win. After all of this, where do you get the time to take care of yourself mentally? To be reflective? To realize that you may be sick?

I think many of us understand that we could be better than what we are but just don’t know how to navigate life properly in order to become better. The day to day breaks us down, grinds us into these beings who aren’t fulfilling their potentials.

We accept this individual that life has made us and believe that person is you. We tell our children about growth and change while we stay the same. We feel as if a word like ‘potential’ is reserved for those who haven’t been molded by life.

However, such belief and acceptance is usually the result of not being reflective, of not controlling your mind and allowing your mind to control you. Your mind is great at manipulating your thoughts to rationalize the person you are. It doesn’t want you to grow because that requires effort which is accompanied by struggle. The mind wishes to be comfortable, the path of least resistance and so, we too walk this path and will keep on walking this path.

Life would be so much easier if someone could come along and fix all your issues with a snap of their finger. A genie of some kind but that’s not how life works. In reality, apart from your close family and friends, no one really cares what you are going through. That’s because everyone is going through something. So, if you want to improve, regardless of the stresses of your life, the first step has to be reflective, to acknowledge that you are sick.

One way to achieve this reflective nature is by cleaning your room, as Jordan Peterson often says. Too many times people point the finger outwards and blame others for the way their own life is. You can’t improve as an individual if you are constantly blaming others. Once you turn the eye inwards, look at yourself, see the mess in your room, see the symptoms of sickness and start to take ownership for them, you can slowly see the change in your character.

In the same vein as clean your room, Jocko Willink’s concept of extreme ownership also makes you confront your own actions. Extreme ownership essentially says that everything that isn’t right in your life is your fault. This may be harsh and perhaps untrue in some cases but by taking on this responsibility you feel a sense of control. If it is all your fault then you are also able to change it. Your actions caused the sickness, your actions can cure it.

Another way can be through mental warfare. To go to war with yourself, as David Goggins did, to push your limitations through such extreme pressure that you only have two choices: Improve or quit. Goggins initially did this through his rigorous studying schedule which included writing out whole textbooks by hand over and over again in order to overcome his learning deficiencies. Discipline and work ethic built through such a task then helped him physically overcome the barriers of Navy Seal training and ultramarathon running.

Goggins was able to shape his mind through work but it was only after he understood that he was sick and that the only person that can cure him was himself.

Perhaps the end goal is to become a friend to yourself. A good friend, a true friend call you out on your mistakes, tells you you’re acting poorly, makes sure you know that someone cares for you, that someone is holding you up to a certain standard, someone who is pushing you past your perceived limitations and that someone can be you. You can keep yourself in check if you are strong enough mentally. But before strength comes the acceptance of weakness, before you can get the medicine, you have to know that you are sick. But once that is known, you must also understand that you are the strength, the cure, the medicine.

What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a person will never be alone, and you may be sure he is a friend of all. (Seneca)

 

Is Having A Conscience Worth The Trouble?

Do we innately know right from wrong? Is that what a conscience is? Is our conscience shaped by our environment? If so, would it not be compromised by the biases held by our environment?

I wonder about these things because it was Henry David Thoreau’s belief that we should act upon what we believe to be right, regardless of what the law says. Thoreau wasn’t just all talk either, for he served time in prison for his refusal to pay his taxes because those taxes would then fund the American-Mexican war which he opposed. So, the man stood by his principles and acted upon them. That’s very commendable. But there aren’t many individuals like Thoreau. I would classify Thoreau as a true individual because he was able to unpack what he desired, what he needed, what he wanted, what principles structured his life and what his limitations were.

All of this came from his deep self reflective nature, much of this is documented in his essay Walden where he spent two years living in a cabin. Thoreau was able to dissect himself and in doing so, came to the understanding that we should be governed first and foremost by our conscience.

But most people are not like Thoreau. Many of us rely on others to tell us what we should believe in and what we should oppose, the hive mind is real. The principles that structure our lives are set by other people, from the laws we follow, the way we behave, what we believe to be right and wrong, all of this is downloaded into us from a young age. Unlike Thoreau, who uploaded his own beliefs, we spend most of our time following trends set by others and in doing so, we get further and further away from our conscience.

Thoreau believed that corporations, like the government, don’t have a conscience but if we have individuals with a conscience in a corporation, then, that corporation could become conscientious. Such ideals are great but the issue isn’t the corporation, it is the individual. How can the corporation be expected to be conscientious when most people rarely find their conscience?

Thoreau was just one of the few who troubled himself in the search for his conscience but who knows if it’s worth the trouble. Life is definitely easier if you just go along with the trend. But is that really living or is that just existing?

Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. it is truly enough said, that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience. Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily agents of injustice. (Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience). 

 

 

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Joseph Campbell’s Advice to Artists

Should I study law? Should I become an accountant? A dentist? A painter? Should I devote myself to writing? How will I pay the bills? Can I make a living doing this?

I need __? I want __? Should I do __ or __? How can I __?

So many questions plague the mind when you focus it on the future. There is fear in not knowing what to do. Some might think that if you figure out what you wish to do with your life then that fear might subside. I found that not to be true. Making a living through art is never guaranteed. With anything there is uncertainty. Knowing what you wish to do is very different from being able to do that thing and even that is different from making a living doing that thing.

The questions of security, stability, happiness and purposeful living always revolve around such decisions.

Joseph Campbell also had similar thoughts. He understood the need to pursue a life of art but at the same time not wanting to be dead broke the entire time. He knew the consequences that could arise from living the “artist way of life” and that penniless living is just filled with struggle and hard times. That life is not for everyone. In order to help ease the decision between pursuing what one loves and what might give them stability, Joseph Campbell differentiated between work and job.

From Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion

The normal situation is that, perhaps for years, you work away at your art, your life vocation, your life-fulfilling field of action, and there’s no money in it. You have to live, though, so you get a job, which may be a low-degree activity relative to what you are interested in. You could, for instance, teach people the art you are operating in yourself. So, let’s say you have a teaching job, and you also have sacred space and time to perform your own work. Your art is what I would call your work. Your employment is your job.

Having separated what you love and how you make a living, Joseph Campbell goes further and talks about what to do if you are given a raise in your job.

Then, you are doing so well in your job that your employer wants to move you into a higher position. You’ll have to give more to the job than before, and you will receive a higher salary, but your new commitments will cut down on your free time. My advice is: don’t accept the promotion.

Time is what people do not have and cannot control. It goes quickly and you need it to do what you wish to do. Your art requires time. What happens when you spend more time on your job? You have less time for your work. In this way, you quickly spiral further and further away from your work as job commitments become more demanding along with higher pay.

It’s like doing your exercise: you set aside a time when you’re going to exercise, and that is a holy time. With your art, you should do the same: give a certain number of hours a day to your art, and make it consistent. Then, whether you’re writing or not, sit there for those hours: it’s a meditation on communication and expression, the two factors in the art work. What will happen, ideally, is that gradually – and it might not be this week or next or even this year – as your given responsibilities drop off, there will be an expansion of the time available to you for the practice of your art. The point I’m making is that your work – that is, your art – and your job must not contaminate each other.

At the end of the day, the dream is to have your job and work be the same thing. For some people that comes early and for others, it happens much later in life. And for some, that combination never takes place. Regardless, a pursuit of stable living does not mean death to the artist inside of you. One can find the proper balance.

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Socrates & How To Think For Oneself

To think for oneself can be a difficult process especially if you harbor self-doubt, as many people do. Self-doubt causes us to conform to the opinions of other people. When you are unsure about yourself and your own reasoning, you naturally flock to the group consensus. Such actions are even stronger when the group consensus is what is considered to be the norm or “common sense”. The sheer number of people supporting one argument is enough for you to doubt anything contrary.

However, if one is to have an “independence of mind” as Alain De Botton puts it, we cannot take what we are told without critically examining it. It is the reason behind a statement that is supreme and not the number of voices speaking. It is reason that allows us to oppose socially sanctioned practices and ideas.

Many people adopt the beliefs and opinions of others without reason.

Other people may be wrong, even when they are in important positions, even when they are espousing beliefs held for centuries by vast majorities. The reason for this simple: they have not examined their beliefs logically.

How does one examine beliefs logically?

The answer lies in the life of Socrates. He was an individual who used his love for wisdom, for philosophy, as his guide. Such love put reason at the center and not traditions, norms, opinions, popularity, etc. His process was simple but it required a disciplined individual to practice it on a daily basis, hence why so many people rather divert such responsibility and adopt other people’s beliefs. But in order to be an individual, one must examine life for him/herself and see what they believe to be right and what is true to them.

The following method is known as the Socratic method of thinking and it can help one to examine the commonly held beliefs, not just of their own but those of the society they are living in as well.

  1. Locate a statement confidently described as common sense.
  2. Imagine for a moment that statement is false. Search for situations or contexts where that statement would not be true.
  3. If a situation is found, the definition must be false or imprecise.
  4. The initial statement must be nuanced to take the exception into account.
  5. Repeat the process if new statement also has an exception.

(The Consolations of Philosophy)

Often times the truth is discovered by finding out what something isn’t. What statements are not true, what beliefs have exceptions, what opinions are based on falsity and so on. Through such critical thinking, you begin to formulate your own thoughts and understandings and hence, begin to think for yourself.

 

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How To Have Optimal Experience In Life

In his book, Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes Optimal Experience in the following way:

It is what the sailor holding a tight course feels when the wind whips through her hair, when the boat lunges through the waves like a colt–sails, hull, wind, and sea humming a harmony that vibrates in the sailor’s veins. It is what a painter feels when the colors on the canvas begin to set up a magnetic tension with each other, and a new thing, a living form, takes shape in front of the astonished creator. Or it is the feeling a father has when his child for the first time responds to his smile. Such events do not occur only when the external conditions are favorable, however: People who have survived concentration camps or who have lived through near-fatal physical dangers often recall that in the midst of their ordeal they experienced extraordinary rich epiphanies in response to such simple events as hearing the song of a bird in the forest, completing a hard task, or sharing a crust of bread with a friend.

What can be concluded from such a statement is that the best moments, the most optimal moments in our lives are not passive ones. The times where you relax and do nothing can be pleasurable but rarely do we look back at such times with fondness and memory. Instead, the opposite is what we recall. The times where we sacrificed, worked hard, stretched ourselves physically and mentally to achieve a goal. These character-defining moments are what gives our lives richness and thus makes these experiences optimal.

Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.

“Make” is the keyword. It means we have to actively pursue tasks that are challenging, which make us uncomfortable and the accomplishment of such tasks would result in growth.

For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat this own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.

An important component to achieving optimal experiences is understanding what you care for and what doesn’t matter to you. You cannot rely on society to determine your rewards and punishments because you may simply not care for what other people find important. So, the pursuit of something that has little value in your life will not provide you with optimal experiences even though it may test you physically or mentally.

To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its reward and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances. This challenge is both easier and more difficult than it sounds: easier because the ability to do so is entirely within each person’s hands; difficult because it requires a discipline and perseverance that are relatively rare in any era, and perhaps especially in the present. And before all else, achieving control over experience requires a drastic change in attitude about what is important and what is not.

The main thing to understand about the optimal experience is that it may not be pleasant as you experience it. When you truly push your body physically to new heights, pain will be associated with that struggle. Or when you consistently put yourself in uncomfortable positions you really test your mind and force it to adapt but during that task, the feeling of being uncomfortable, of quitting, of the easier things you could be doing instead will be prevalent in your mind. That resistance is something you have to deal with.

Getting control of life is never easy, and sometimes it can be definitely painful. But in the long-run optimal experiences add up to a sense of mastery–or perhaps better, a sense of participation in determining the content of life–that comes as close to what is usually meant by happiness as anything else we can conceivably experience.

The aim then is to pursue enjoyment and not pleasure. Pleasure can be hedonistic and is often temporary where after the pleasurable act is over, that sensation or feeling fades. While enjoyment, which comes from optimal experiences, stays with you long after the act, it is this enjoyment we think back to, feel a sense of pride and are overcome with happy emotions when recalling what we have accomplished.

 

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On Being Virtuous vs Seeming Virtuous

We are told to judge a person by his actions. Then, people who act virtuously should mean they are virtuous people. But can you be virtuous if your thoughts are muddied with vices? Meaning, your acts are good but your desires or wants are bad. So, its a struggle of suppressing what you truly desire in order to project a certain type of image. A virtuous being. The kind that you see on social media where people only post their highlights, the best and edited parts of themselves. More so than ever before there are people claiming to be one way for the public while being different in their private life. But does that matter? Perhaps these people deserve praise for showing self-restraint, discipline, self-control, showing that one is not lead by their immediate emotions that there is a calculated thought behind their behavior.

So, if action alone is to be the judge of character, then it’s easy to be a virtuous individual for it’s easy to seem virtuous in overt actions. It’s easy to do the right then when everyone is looking and expecting you to behave properly. Just like obeying traffic lights in the daytime but how about at midnight? When there isn’t a car in sight? Do you still obey?

Perhaps then, the action of an individual is just one part of the puzzle. Another piece maybe their internal thoughts and desires. Or, the action itself could be broken down to several pieces where the smaller acts hold as much weight as larger ones. Those acts that you perform without the threat of the mob.

Maybe the overt action is controlled and disciplined, but what about the smaller acts? Can someone who is suppressing his vices really keep them locked up in all aspects of life? We do hear stories of supposed good and virtuous people being found guilty of horrific actions. Bill Cosby comes to mind. The disharmony in one’s thoughts and actions will show itself at some point. Maybe this is why we feel put off by a person who puts down those less fortunate than them. Someone who talks rudely to a waiter or makes fun of a janitor. These smaller actions can be the real them seeping out when they don’t feel the pressure to be virtuous or moral or excellent. It’s here we see the sight behind the mask.

I suppose the point of all of this is to withhold judgment about another person’s character until you have sufficient evidence. In our media-driven world, we often see people doing good or bad, see people at their highest of highs and also their lowest of lows and we quickly formulate a judgment. Claim some to be good people and others to be bad. This judgment could be correct and is probably some evolutionary tactic to identify those who can harm us and those who can aid us. But such judgment can also set you up to be fooled or betrayed. Someone you trusted could turn out to be untrustworthy through later actions and those judged as bad due to some overt action could change and this change could be seen in their smaller acts yet you may be blind to such things because of your previous bias’.

It’s always better to detach and be objective. To take into account sufficient evidence. To formulate an opinion but be flexible enough to change it and to harmonize your actions, large or small, with those of equally good thoughts and desires so one can practice virtue at all times, be excellent at all times, be moral without cowardice.

People believe that virtue and vice are only communicated through overt action but in reality, virtue and vice are emitted in the breath of every moment. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance).

 

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